Singing their way into Justice: Harmony through Harmony

Music, faith and justice: Calgary choral group creates values-based community

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It looks like a giant connect the dots, a series of highlights made possible through relationship and invitation. An elementary school in Amanzimtoti, South Africa is the first dot. Here several members of Harmony through Harmony (HtH), a choral ensemble from Calgary,  join hands in a huge circle around the school gym and lead the students in singing songs in Zulu.

Afterward, the principal of the school, with tears in his eyes, tells them that he just witnessed a miracle: the Zulu children have been elevated to equal in the eyes of their white peers. The second dot is in Winnipeg, Manitoba during two learning days with First Nation elders. It ends with an invitation to continue learning about Truth and Reconciliation and an invitation to participate in a sweat lodge.

Next is in front of the sacred fire at the tepee at the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Edmonton, Alberta. Once again, members of HtH stand in a circle joining hands, this time around the fire. After asking those present if they can offer a song, they sing an a cappella song of lament, “To a Child.” They invite the elders and others present to join their circle. Following the song, they are asked to sing it again. Then, a female elder in her mid-80s sings in her native tongue.

Members of a unique Calgary-based choral group produce awareness concerts and also perform at various fundraisers, churches and schools.

Members of a unique Calgary-based choral group produce awareness concerts and also perform at various fundraisers, churches and schools.

It was a “tremendous honour” to be invited into these spaces, says Beth McLean Wiest. “Each has been a transformative and sacred experience.”

“God uses the music to break down barriers that are there . . . its spirit ministering to spirit in ways that are beyond our understanding,” says Beth, HtH executive director. “It amazes me every time.”

Those are a few of many high-point memories for the Calgary-based community. HtH has embarked on learning and serving trips to South Africa in 2011, Winnipeg and Southern Ontario in 2013, Edmonton and India in 2014, and Southern Saskatchewan in 2015.

Through music, HtH shares “voices for the voiceless,” with a passion to fight for justice for the oppressed. The leaders share a Christian worldview and bring that into the group. Participants attend a variety of churches or no church, and for some HtH is their church.

Faithful beginning

The impetus to form HtH developed in 2008 from a synthesis of Beth’s passions: community, travel, music, faith and leadership. “I was literally on a treadmill when this vision came of how these different passions in my life could intersect,” she says.

She was grappling with the impact of American Idol culture on music, and noticed many people were using an arts organization she was involved with to help make their child the next star. This brought to light a values disconnect for Beth.

“For me, that’s not what music and art was created for. It was created to glorify God, to be a form of expression to ultimately worship God, not worship ourselves,” she says.

Almost 18 months later, HtH began, founded by four friends (including Beth’s husband) who are all choral conductors. The founders invited people with leadership and a passion for music into the pilot project with the start date of a month later.

“Miraculously, that very first rehearsal we had 12 singers and it was balanced soprano, alto, tenor, bass,” she says. Some of those people stayed through the pilot year, others did not, with a total of 22 people throughout the year and a core group of 11 who continued the adventure.

Initially, participants were all 25 years old and under, and now there are ages 18 to early 30s represented. This season there are 24 members and two ensembles: one aged 24 and under or have been part of HtH less than five years, and those that are 25 or older or have been in the group five or more years.

Community by design

When determining how the various passions would work together leaders decided on a few things that are unusual for a choir, Beth says. The group is intentionally kept small, with meetings held in a home. Each meeting includes a shared meal, music rehearsal, group study and discussion, and prayer. Though the shared meal was optional at the start, it became clear so much community is built over food that it is an integral part of participating, Beth notes.

The one-and-a-half hours of rehearsal is intense, with a variety of choral styles including a cappella. The discussion period has a curriculum focus, often around a book study, film, current events or song lyrics. Prayer opens and ends the meeting.

HtH performs at fundraisers, at churches, and in schools. Twice a year, HtH produces awareness concerts – a reflection of the community’s journey and impact from learning about a topic. Every Christmas a performance called No Crib for a Bed is produced, the most recent focusing on the perspective of a security guard grappling with life questions. The spring awareness concerts have a specific injustice focus, such as the injustice of sexual exploitation and human trafficking of children. Through these activities, in the first six seasons HtH helped raise more than $540,000 for local and international organizations.

Developing leaders is part of HtH’s mission, and members are encouraged to use their gifts and strengths with the group. Members can engage in a variety of areas such as cooking meals, leading discussion, assisting with production, and deepening choral conducting skills.

What’s next?

HtH just completed a strategic planning process of 10 months that included interviewing all internal stakeholders and many external stakeholders. The process was encouraging and affirming, says Beth. One of the discoveries made is HtH a fertile place for anyone experiencing a life transition, regardless of age.

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“I believe people are drawn to this because there aren’t a lot of places where they can really, actively grapple with value and do so in community where there’s a learning component,” Beth says. “Singing then gives space for expression and performance is an opportunity to testify to the journey we have been on together.”

HtH’s vision is to see thriving communities worldwide where people are attending to their God-given identity and purpose.

The group is working towards its five-year goal to see other HtH ensembles form in three locations: another city in Alberta, another province in Canada, and another country. Beth says it is an audacious goal, and the group is looking at what is required for that multiplication to occur.

“We’re excited to see what God will do,” she says.

If you are interested to learn more or want to get in touch, visit www.harmonythroughharmony.com.

Co – created with Harmony through Harmony

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